Berkeley Landmarks :: Rev. Dr. Robert Bentley House

Rev. Dr. Robert Irving Bentley House

2683 Le Conte Avenue, Berkeley, CA

Daniella Thompson

The restored Bentley house, 2004 (photo: Daniella Thompson)

Among the surviving original residences in Daley’s Scenic Park, the Bentley house is one of the least assuming. Built in 1900, the design of this modest Dutch Colonial Revival structure may have been adapted from a pattern book of the sort popular at the time.

Despite its simplicity, the house possesses several strong design features, including an overhanging gambrel roof open to extended eaves; a prominent front porch with a shed roof supported by open brackets; a three-sided window bay above the front porch; and numerous windows on all sides, often arranged in groups of three.

Clad in unpainted shingles and strategically positioned at the crest of the hill, the house is sited at the center of its lot, lending a rustic appearance to its surroundings and acting as a graceful reminder of the Hillside Club’s Living with Nature ideals. According to the late Ellen Bentley, wife of the original owner’s grandson, the garden had always been informal. The house is of particular interest as an example of The Simple Home that was built at an average cost ($1,793), since there are very few such homes remaining in Berkeley. It remained unaltered and in possession of the Bentley family until late 1996, when it was sold to a developer who replaced the brick foundation with a concrete one and converted the two-story sleeping porch in the rear into an enclosed wing with a kitchen-family room on the ground floor and a balconied bedroom above.

The house during Ellen Bentley’s residence
(photos left & above right: Susan Cerny)

Facing the street, the property is bound by a textured rusticated concrete retaining wall that forms part of the Daley’s Scenic Park Street Improvements, a City of Berkeley Landmark. A curving stairway leads from the street onto a garden path that continues to the front porch. The same retaining wall runs along the entire length of the 2600 Le Conte Avenue block, where similar curved stairways can be found at 2617 and 2663 Le Conte Avenue.

The Bentley house was designed and built in 1900 by prominent Berkeley contractor, builder, pioneer civic figure, and amateur artist A.H. Broad (1851–1930). Alphonso Herman Broad was born in Maine to a farming family. He came to Berkeley in 1877 and immediately took an active part in the town’s civic life. In 1878, he was elected Berkeley’s first board of trustees, serving for two years. In 1887 and ’88 he served as town marshal and ex-officio Superintendent of Streets.

Having started out as a carpenter, A.H. Broad went into business as a building contractor and designer in 1880. Within five years, he became well-known throughout Berkeley and Oakland for his Eastlake cottages. For five decades, Broad not only supervised construction of a large number of structures in all parts of Berkeley but also designed many of them.

The oldest surviving buildings designed by Broad are the William Clark House (1545 Dwight Way, 1884), the George Edwards House (2530 Dwight Way, 1886) and the former Seventh Street School in West Berkeley, dating from 1887 and later to become an artist’s studio. In 1892, A.H. Broad built the Whittier School, the Le Conte School, and the Columbus School. He also built the Odd Fellows Hall (demolished in the 1920s) on Addison Street and Shattuck Avenue. After the San Francisco fire, Mr. Broad became “superintendent of reconstruction of Berkeley Schools injured by the earthquake,” rebuilding various sections of Berkeley High School and other academic buildings. It was at this time that he gained the distinction of being the first city official ever to seek a reduction in salary.

A.H. Broad (photo courtesy of the Berkeley Historical Society)
  A.H. Broad kept up with the changing styles in home design, and his work ranges from the early Stick-Eastlake to the rustic Brown Shingle of the early 1900s. Broad often worked as Bernard Maybeck’s contractor, and his later work reflects the influence of the First Bay Tradition architects. Four other Berkeley Landmarks built or altered by A.H. Broad are the George Edwards house (2530 Dwight Way, 1886); Broad’s own house (2115–2117 Kittredge Street, 1894); the Haste Street annex of McKinley School (2419 Haste Street, 1906); and the Town and Gown Club (2401 Dwight Way, alterations circa 1909).

In his later years, Broad gave in to a long-cherished desire to paint. Largely self-taught, he was a close friend and sketching partner of William Keith, specializing in landscapes of both California and his native New England. As his artistic skills developed, Broad began to paint a “signature” picture to be hung in each of the houses he completed. Many of his paintings are prized in Berkeley homes. Examples of his art are to be found at the Oakland Museum’s collection of California Art, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, and the Elks Club building. The painting below used to hang in the office of the Pusey Real Estate Co. at 1920 Shattuck Avenue (current location of the Triple Rock brewpub).

A landscape by A.H. Broad

College of the Siskiyous’ extensive website on Mount Shasta reproduces one of Broad’s paintings of Mount Shasta on its page The San Francisco Art Boom: 1860s–1880s. Compare Broad’s painting with that of William Keith. For copyright reasons, the images may not be reproduced here. On the same page we learn:

[Broad] was a close friend of many of the 1870s artists, and [...] his paintings are typical of the Barbizon influenced paintings of the post boom period.

Broad was a self-taught artist who often painted with a characteristic ‘apple’-green color. As mentioned, his paintings are reminiscent of the Barbizon school, though they are never as dark and moody as those of the later style of William Keith, with whom Broad was a close friend and sketching partner. The two made many sketching trips together to the Sierras.

Alphonso Herman Broad is mentioned in several art history books, including Artists in California, 1786–1940 by Edan Milton Hughes (Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento) and Directory to the Bicentennial Inventory of American Paintings Executed Before 1914 (Ayer Publishing, 1976).

Broad built the Le Conte Avenue house for Rev. Dr. Robert Irving Bentley, a minister and important 19th-century figure in the Methodist Episcopal Church. It is reported that Bentley purchased the lot in 1898 with the intention of building a retirement home in the Berkeley hills. Earlier, he had lived at 2410 Fulton Street, and later at 2247 Bancroft Way, near the Trinity Methodist Church of which he was pastor in the mid-1890s.

Reminiscing about Dr. Bentley in the 1980s, his grandson, the well-known printer, poet, calligrapher, and liberal arts professor Wilder Bentley (1900–1989), recalled that after a busy life of being constantly on the move, the minister had looked forward to a home of his own where he and his wife, Frances, could settle down in restful retirement. That hope was not to be fulfilled, as he lived only a few months in his new home, passing away in September 1900.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004

On Friday, 28 September 1900, the Berkeley Daily Gazette published Dr. Bentley’s obituary on its front page:

The Passing of a Noted Divine.

Dr. Robert Bentley dies this morning after a short illness.

Dr. Robert Bentley, one of the best known divines in the State, died this morning at his home on Le Conte Avenue. He had been ill less than a week and his unexpected death has been a great shock to his wide circle of friends.

He was particularly well known and well loved in this county, as his home had been here for many years past and he had done much work among the people. He had been minister to churches in three cities of this county.

Robert Bentley was born in Cambridge, Eng., in 1838. He was the eldest son of the family. At the age of 12 years his father died and he came to America.* He attended the Northwestern University, graduating in 1856. In 1860 he entered the ministry, having his first church in Chicago.

Dr. Bentley came to California in 1868 to take charge of the Central Methodist Episcopal Church in San Francisco. He has also been pastor of churches in Portland, Oregon; Santa Barbara, Sacramento, Oakland, Alameda and Berkeley. From 1885 to 1892 he was presiding elder of Oakland district. Two weeks ago he was again appointed presiding elder of the Oakland district. His more recent work was connected with the Fred Finch Orphanage, in which he took an active part.

Dr. Bentley had attended a secret conference in Pacific Grove, returning to his home in the first part of this week. He was taken ill after his return. Besides a widow Dr. Bentley leaves a daughter, Miss Mary Bentley, and three sons, C.H., R.I., and E.F. Bentley. Funeral arrangements have not yet been completed.

* In fact, the whole family came to America in 1850, and Robert’s father did not die until 1852.

Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, Allston Way at Ellsworth Street, c. 1909

A pamphlet written in 1962 by Dr. Lillian Estelle Fisher and titled Trinity Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA reports:

On December 5 1887 when Rev. Bentley presided at the 4th Quarterly Conference, the church was incorporated on the list of missions for 50 years as Trinity Methodist Church.1 Fifty or sixty members were present.2
  1. The church was located at Allston Way and Ellsworth Street, present location of Edwards Field.
  2. The Conference took place at Clapp Hall on Shattuck Avenue.

At the Forty-Ninth Session of the California Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, held at Pacific Grove, CA on 12–17 September 1901, Dr. Bentley was eulogized at length as a strong, spiritually minded man who with his wife worked tirelessly to develop congregations in numerous growing California communities.

Ellen Bentley, Wilder’s widow, remembered only three of Dr. Bentley’s children: Robert Irving, Charles Harvey, and Mary Ingle (1878–1940). The following chronology is based in part on Ellen’s and Wilder’s oral testimonies to BAHA.

California Fruit Canners’ Manzanita brand (image: National Museum of American History)

Robert Irving Bentley the second went into the fruit packing business in San Jose directly after college and in 1890 was made manager of the Sacramento Packing Company, which his brother Charles, a Beta Theta Pi and Phi Beta Kappa at Cal, joined following his own graduation in 1891. In 1899, Sacramento Packing merged with seventeen other companies to form the California Fruit Canners Association (CFCA), which used the Del Monte name as one of its many brands. Robert became vice-president and general manager of CFCA, while Charles served as its sales manager. The brothers continued in these roles after CFCA was absorbed in 1916 into the newly formed California Packing Corporation (Calpak). In 1920, Robert was elected to the presidency of Calpak, which would be renamed Del Monte in 1967.

Following Dr. Bentley’s death, his widow Frances Harvey Bentley continued living at 2683 Le Conte Avenue. On 8 February 1904, The Berkeley Daily Gazette reported on its front page: “The first colored co-ed to register at the University of California is Miss Regina Crawford, whose home is in far away Meridian, Mississippi. [...] Miss Crawford is now staying at the home of Mrs. Robert Bentley, widow of the late Rev. Robert Bentley of the Methodist Church. She is being given employment by Mrs. Bentley and is thus enabled to support herself while carrying on her University work.”

In 1905, Charles Harvey’s first wife died, and his mother went to live with him in San Francisco, leasing the Berkeley house to renters. Charles remarried in 1908, and Frances eventually returned to Berkeley, living at various addresses until 1934, when she died at the age of 94. Her unmarried daughter Mary, who had looked after Frances in her later years, moved into the Le Conte Avenue house and resided there until her own death in 1940. Mary worked as secretary of the Berkeley YWCA, through which she met and formed a lifelong friendship with Maud Muriel Russell, a social worker, activist, and editor specializing in East Asian affairs.

Perhaps the most interesting figure in the Bentley family was Harvey Wilder Bentley, the aforementioned grandson who was one of Charles Harvey’s children. Wilder (after his mother’s maiden name) graduated from San Francisco’s Lowell High School in 1918. He attended Yale University and the University of Michigan, then spent several years in Europe providing relief work with French war orphans and later traveling. He married Ellen Mayo in 1927. In the late 1920s, he was at the University of Oklahoma, where his book The art of Laurence Pickett Williams (1930) was published. From 1930 through 1933, Wilder worked at Porter Garnett’s Laboratory Press at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, honing his skills in the craft of fine printing. In 1932, he became an honorary associate member of the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

Having returned to California with their two young children, Wilder Jr. and Margaret (later Sevcenko), Wilder and Ellen settled at 1836 San Antonio Ave., Berkeley. They found an old Acorn hand press that had been shipped around the Horn, bought it, and established a small publishing business, producing limited editions of finely printed books, portfolios, broadsides, scrolls, and cards. Their earliest publications were broadsides in the Acorn Series, beginning with Wilder’s own Excursion on the Bay and Unheroic couplets for the poets of New Albion (“Printed on the Acorn Press in the Thousand Oaks”). The following year, they began publishing under the Archetype Press imprint and opened a shop in Euclid Court, on the commercial block just north of the campus. Wilder taught Ellen how to set type, and it was she who did the typesetting and proofreading, in addition to sewing the books that Wilder designed. Their motto was “The fine printer begins where the careful printer leaves off.”

One of the items Wilder “and his faithful spouse, Ellen” published in Euclid Court was N’en Parlons Plus!, Excerpts From Divers Papers & Chronicles of The Arts Club, 1937–1938. This 20-page folio was limited to 105 copies and issued for private distribution among members of The Arts Club and their friends: “It is not primarily designed to explain to the world in general what we are, what we do, how well we reason, or how badly we sing. Rather it is a souvenir, intended to revive some of our very happy memories.”

Rae Lakes by Ansel Adams (one of 50 photographs from “Sierra Nevada: the John Muir Trail”)

The Bentleys also printed William Saroyan’s A Native American (San Francisco: George Fields, 1938) in a limited edition of 450 copies, each signed by the author. By far the best-known book to emerge from the Archetype Press was Ansel Adams’ Sierra Nevada: the John Muir Trail (1938). In addition to being a photographic masterpiece, the book became a promotional tool on behalf of the Sierra Club’s campaign to establish a new national park on federally owned land in the Kings River Canyon region southeast of Yosemite:

Following the trail that runs near the crest of the Sierra from Yosemite down to Sequoia National Park, the book included striking pictures of the Kings Canyon region, such as Grouse Valley; Devil’s Crags From Palisade Creek Canyon; Mather Pass; Arrow Peak From Cartridge Pass, and Mount Clarence King. Ansel sent a copy to Harold Ickes, secretary of the Interior, whose department included the National Park Service, and whom Ansel had met at the 1936 conference. “The pictures are extraordinarily fine and impressive,” Ickes thanked him. He hoped that Congress would soon establish the park: “Then we can be sure that your descendants and mine will be able to take as beautiful pictures as you have taken—that is, provided they have your skill and artistry.” Ickes showed the book to his boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who kept it for himself. Ansel sent another copy to Ickes, and Kings Canyon National Park was established two years later.

With the advent of World War II, the Bentleys closed the Archetype Press. The printing press was dismantled and stored in the basement of 2683 Le Conte Ave., which Wilder and Ellen had purchased from his aunt Mary’s estate.

In addition to his printing activities, Wilder Bentley was a prolific poet, calligrapher, and brush artist. The Bancroft Library houses a large collection of his poetic output, practically all of it printed by the Archetype Press. In May 1943, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco exhibited his brush drawings.

“Dancing Drunk, Skid Row” (1949)

“Iago” (1950)

After the war, Wilder Bentley returned to teaching. Between 1946 and 1956, he was professor of English and Philosophy at the College of the Pacific and Stockton Junior College, both in Stockton. In 1957, he was appointed professor at San Francisco State College, where he taught until his retirement in 1971. A former student described him as “a white-haired, elderly, enthusiastic expositor of the beauties and significance of American writing” who “was well-known in the college, if not beyond it, as one of those professors who is an inspiring catalyst for receptive students.”

Following his retirement from teaching, Wilder dedicated himself to the epic poem The Poetry of Learning (Archetype Press,1975–85). A collection of 26 scrolls (some rolling out to about 15 feet in length), it was printed on an 1870s-issue Palmer & Rey “Washington”-type hand press in the basement of 2683 Le Conte Avenue (the Acorn press had been sold some years earlier). In A Comp’s-Eye-View of Wilder Bentley and the Archetype Press (La Crosse, WI: Sumac Press, 1983), Emerson G. Wulling described the work in detail:

These scrolls are a humanistic autobiography of life lived on the border of materialism [...] written in various metrical forms. This is a typographical and literary accomplishment. One thinks of the Education of Henry Adams as being like The Poetry of Learning. Both are life views. Adams is a historian among whose symbols of life is the dynamo. Bentley is a man of letters who lives with a printing press. Both use their education as bases for reviewing their lives in context with their times. In doing so they offer substantial thought about human values. The early scrolls are largely narrative & descriptive about travels in Europe, about teaching, about printing. The later Scrolls are more epigrammatic, about people, about current events, about environment. All are written in more or less traditional English poetic diction, with occasional sly puns. They read comfortably despite several rigorous structures: terza rima, sonnet, canzone, sestet, and free verse.

Wilder Bentley passed away in 1989. His widow Ellen continued living at 2683 Le Conte Avenue until 1996, when she sold the house to her realtor and moved to a nursing home. After surviving intact for almost a century, the Bentley house fell upon hard times. The realtor wished to develop the property for resale. Her plans included demolishing 30 feet of the landmark retaining wall, excavating the hillside, and constructing a two-car garage. A neighborhood protest led the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the City Council to deny a demolition permit for the wall, and the owner stopped all work on the house in May 1997, leaving it in a semi-demolished state for almost a year. Open to the elements, the house suffered exterior and interior damage from the winter rains, and its future was uncertain.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, February 2004

This story ends happily, with an owner-builder who moved in with his family, meticulously restored the house, and planted a lovely garden. The Bentley house was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 2 February 1998.

The partially demolished house overlaid with the proposed garage (photo: James M. Sharp, 1997)

Seven years later (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)
Bentley house from the air in 1994. On its right is the Hatfield house (Julia Morgan & Ira Hoover, 1908) and on its left the Kluegel house (John Hudson Thomas, 1911). Click the photo for an aerial view of Daley’s Scenic Park.

For additional information about the Bentley family, see:
The Bentleys of Le Conte Avenue: 96 Years of Public Service and Art.



Copyright © 2004–2019 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.